Riley Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Riley Meaning
Riley name has both English and Irish origins.
England the surname is locational, from the hamlet of Ryley at Altham
Accrington in Lancashire. The name
derived from the Old English rygh leah meaning
“rye clearance.”
In Ireland the O’Raghailligh sept was the most powerful sept of
the old Gaelic kingdom of Breffny in present-day Cavan and
surrounding counties. O’Raghailligh became
O’Reilly and Reilly in Ireland.
But Reilly on its travels, in particular to America, often
became Riley.

Riley Resources on

Riley Ancestry

was the origin of the Riley name in England
and Lancashire accounted for almost 40% of the Rileys in England in the

In the 1881 census the
Riley name was still mainly concentrated in
towns and villages in east Lancashire along the Calder river and Ribble
valley. An early spelling was Ryley:

  • Richard
    Ryley was
    born in Whalley in 1597 and died there in 1637 (the spelling, however,
    Riley for the Rev. Thomas Riley, a Whalley minister who died in 1631).
  • while
    William Ryley, a Lancaster herald who
    lived around this time, was thought to have come from the Accrington
    area. His son John, born in London, was a
    Court portrait
    painter in the later 1600’s. His spelling
    varied between Ryley and Riley.

the parish registers of Newchurch in Rossendale, the
Riley name was almost uniformly spelt Rilay until the mid-1700’s.

The earliest Riley
references were in Accrington. A Riley
family settled at Fearnihalgh, later Hillock Farm, in the early 15th
and it became one of Accrington’s most important farms.
High Riley Cottages, built in the 1600’s, was
an early landmark of what was then still a farming community. When cotton mills arrived in the 19th
century, Rileys remained prominent
. John Riley was a
of the Peace in the 1890’s and made his home at Arden Hall. Edmund Riley, once a fishmonger, built the
Office Arcade in the town in 1896.

Post Office Arcade, a covered walkway
comprising 17 premises, was one of the first shopping arcades in the
country. However, the venture was not a
success as the shops proved difficult to let.”

Burnley-based Riley Brothers, a
family-run haulage business established in 1906, went bankrupt in 2016. 

There was a Riley outpost in west Lancashire, in Fylde parish near
present-day Blackpool. John Riley married Margaret Hesketh in
Poulton le Fylde around the year 1710. Rileys from nearby
villages at Freckleton and Kirkham were to be found from the

Meanwhile Rileys in Liverpool and Manchester included Irish
Reillys. There were
more than 200 Rileys in the 1851 Liverpool census
who gave Ireland as their country of birth
James Reilly was born in
Liverpool of Irish parents in 1825 but as James Riley married Hannah
Wovenden in Manchester in 1851. He was by trade a cabinet maker.

Rileys extended across the Pennines into Yorkshire and southward to
Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Warwickshire.

Rileys were present at the Riley House Farm in Eyam, Derbyshire from
the 17th century and possibly earlier. They later spread to the
Derby area. The Eyam population was largely wiped out by plague
in 1665 and the area is now most noted for its Riley graves.

appeared in a court case in Stoke near Coventry, Warwickshire in 1516. In the home of William Riley, John Riley was
hit by clay being thrown from a tile house and died of his injuries.

also Rileys at Foleshill nearby. William
Riley was a butcher there in the early 1800’s and later Rileys were
weavers. William
Riley of the next generation was an early cycle manufacturer in the
1890’s. His four sons – Percy, Victor,
Stanley, and Allan – introduced the
first Riley motor car
in 1913

Reilly (or O’Reilly) is the 10th most common surname in Ireland.
But the variant spelling Riley is rarely to be found there. There
only 15 Rileys in Griffith’s
of the mid-19th century and fewer than 200 in Ireland

America. Most Rileys in America are
probably of Irish origin. They may have been Reilly in
Ireland. But shipping records suggest that 30-40% of the Reillys
that came to America adopted the Riley name, either because they chose
that spelling or that was what the immigration officer wrote
down. The expression “Life of Riley” probably came
out of the Irish American community.

Rileys in Maryland.
The Riley presence from Ireland started early here.

At the age of 20 Maolmordha Reilly from county Cavan departed London on
the Bonaventure and landed as
Miles Riley in Viirginia. He received land grants in Rapahannock
county. His family story and descendant lines were recounted in
Robert Riley’s 1999 book The
Colonial Riley Families

It was his son Hugh Riley who established the family presence in
Maryland. He was a carpenter by trade, also a farmer and land
surveyor. Over the years he acquired the skills and funding
necessary to become a successful land speculator.

  • one line via his son Hugh led in Maryland to Isaac Riley, a
    plantation owner in Montgomery county. Among his slaves in the Riley-Bolten House
    (as it is now called) was Josiah Henson. He was mistreated and
    ran away to Canada in 1830. Josiah’s autobiography
    served as a model for Harriet
    Beecher’s Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
  • another line via his son Solomon led to the Carolinas and later
    Alabama. This line was covered in L. Colson’s 1985 book Riley Family History.
  • and a third line via his son Eliphaz led to Samuel Riley who
    fought in the Revolutionary War. Afterwards he became an Indian
    trader and agent in Tennessee and was adopted as a chieftain of the
    Cherokee tribe.

Other Rileys of this family migrated to Kentucky and southern Indiana.

Bennet Reiley, of unknown origin, was married to Susanna Drury in St.
Mary’s county, Maryland in 1784 (the name was generally spelt Reilly
and Riley during his lifetime). His son Bennet, born three years
later, adopted the Riley spelling. This Bennet joined the US army at
the time of the War of 1812, fought in the war against Mexico, and then
headed west, serving as the military Governor of California in 1849.

German Rileys. James
Whitcomb Riley, the Hoosier poet of Indiana in
the 1890’s, was probably of German origin.
Family tradition held that his great grandfather James had come
Pennsylvania from county Cork in Ireland.
However, this James, it appears, had been born in Pennsylvania,
in 1765, and
was the son of German immigrants Paul and Louise Reylandt. Riley descendants moved from Pennsylvania to
in the 1820’s

Later Arrivals.
Many Reillys continued to take the Riley name on arrival in
America. Those who did in the mid-19th century included:

  • Edward and Catherine Riley from county Cavan who arrived in 1840
    and farmed in upstate New York. Their son Patrick was a pioneer
    of Custer county in Nebraska, arriving there in 1878.
  • Martin and Ellen Riley from Dublin who came in 1847 and settled
    in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. Martin was a coppersmith by
    trade. Their son Matthew prospered as a lawyer in Bessemer,
  • while Hugh and Ellen Riley left Ireland for Brooklyn, NY in
    1853. Their son P.F. Riley headed West and struck lucky as a
    silver miner in Montana.

Rileys did make it to America. Jim
Riley’s family had originally hailed from Warwickshire.
His father was a cotton merchant in
Manchester when Jim was born. Jim
to San Francisco in 1876. It was said
that his ship sank in San Francisco harbor and that he lost all of his
silver he had brought with him.
Silver-less he did marry and settle down there.

Australia and New Zealand.
The first Riley in Australia may well have been John Riley, born on the convict
ship Kitty in November 1792 in Sydney harbor.

Alexander Riley, descended from Irish
Reillys in county Cavan, had departed London for Sydney in 1803. For a while he prospered there as a merchant
and he did successfully introduce Saxon merino sheep into NSW in 1830. But he died just three years later in

Other Irish Rileys, this time from Manchester – brothers Patrick,
and James – departed for Melbourne in 1851. Patrick
became a well-to-do
land agent, but died at an early age in 1858.
James pursued a career in the theater under the stage name of
Campbell. In 1859 James Riley aka James
C. Campbell was accidentally stabbed
during a performance

Arthur Riley departed Accrington in Lancashire for
Melbourne in 1881, married there, and then settled in Wellington, New
four years later. He established there a
very successful design school.


Riley Miscellany

Rileys in Lancashire in the 1881 Census.  The following were the main towns and parishes in Lancashire with the
largest number of Rileys in the 1881 census.  The main
concentration at that time was in east Lancashire.

East Lancashire Whalley    502
Blackburn    445
Accrington    402
Burnley    192
Oldham    192
Major Urban Areas Liverpool    562
Manchester    517
West Lancashire Preston    200

Some Rileys in Accrington in the 19th Century.  The directory of 1818 gave the name of James Riley, a calico printer at Broad Oak.  He went on to reside at one of the houses at
Breg Hebble on his marriage.  He died
there at the ripe old age of ninety years, having brought up a family
of six
sons and three daughters.  He always wore
a silk hat and tail coat.

set up a timber yard and five of his sons were
to work there (his eldest becoming a schoolmaster).
James’s youngest son Joseph was a born
musician and nothing pleased him better than to visit some neighbor’s
where he would entertain them on a piano or harmonium.
His very soul was in the music that he
played.  “His music now is silent” was an
appropriate epitaph on his memorial card.

The Riley Motor Car.  Riley’s founder
William Riley had remained resolutely opposed to diverting the
resources of his
bicycle business into motor cars.  So in
1903 three of his sons pooled resources, borrowed a necessary balancing
from their mother, and established a separate Riley Engine Company in
Coventry.  They successfully produced
engines for several years before coming out with their first Riley
motor car in

motorcar sales grew rapidly in the inter-war period.  The Riley
Engine Company produced 4-, 6-, and 8-cylinder engines, while the Riley
coachbuilders constructed more than a dozen different bodies.  Riley models at this time included:

  • Saloons:
    Adelphi, ‘Continental’ (Close-coupled Touring Saloon), Deauville,
    Kestrel, Mentone, Merlin, Monaco, Stelvio, Victor
  • Coupes:
    Ascot, Lincock
  • Tourers:
    Alpine, Lynx, Gamecock
  • Sports:
    Brooklands, Imp, MPH, Sprite
  • Limousines:
    Edinburgh, Winchester.

sports cars became popular for racing at Brooklands
in England and le Mans in France.

By about 1936, however, the business had
become overextended, with too many models and too few common parts,
with the
Coventry factory having become outdated.  Riley
was then rescued and taken over by William Morris and became part of
the Nuffield Group.  Although
production subsequently moved away from the Midlands, the Riley
name and its motto (as old as the industry, as modern as the hour)
until 1969.

The Riley-Bolten House in Maryland.  The Riley-Bolten House, known locally as Uncle Tom’s Cabin,
is a historic home located at North Bethesda, Maryland.
Isaac Riley was an early owner of the house, the center of his 3,700
acre plantation.  He married there in 1818 to Matilda Middleton
while he was acting as a guardian to Matilda’s younger brother.
Isaac was 44 at the time and Matilda 18.

In 1795 he had acquired a six-year old slave named Josiah Henson
on whom, over the years, he came to rely.  In
1825 Riley
fell onto economic hardship and was being sued by his
brother-in-law.  In desperation he begged
Henson to help him out and Henson
agreed and did so.

Afterwards Henson tried
to buy his freedom.   He
his master $350 which he had saved up and a note promising a further
$100.  Riley, however, added an extra zero
the paper and changed the fee to $1,000. Cheated
of his money, Henson fled to Kentucky
and then escaped to Canada after learning that he might be sold.

Henson’s autobiography, The
Life of Josiah
Henson Formerly a Slave
was the model for Harriet
Beecher’s Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The Life of Riley.  The term “life of Riley,” meaning
living a life of luxury, was American in origin and probably dated back
to the early

phrase cropped up as “life of Reilly” in the military during World War
One.  In a letter from Sergeant Monzert
of the American Expeditionary Forces ‘somewhere in France,’ an extract
of which
was published in The Brooklyn
Daily Eagle
May 26,
1918, he wrote that he and his pals were ‘living the life of Reilly.’

as to its origin, for example from James Whitcomb Riley’s poems in the
depicting the comforts of a prosperous home life.  But
the Irish connection does appear the more probable.
After the Reilly clan had consolidated
hold on county Cavan in Ireland, they started to mint their own money.  Their coins, called “O’Reillys” and
“Reillys,” became synonymous with a monied person.  A
gentleman freely spending was therefore
“living on his Reillys.”

gained national significance with The Life
of Riley
, a radio sitcom of the 1940’s starring William Bendix
which later became
a long-running TV series in the 1950’s.  The
initial script cast Bendix as blundering Chester A. Riley, a wing
riveter at
the fictional Cunningham Aircraft plant in California.  His
frequent exclamation of indignation – “What
a revoltin’ development this is!” – became one of the
famous catchphrases of
the 1940’s.

John Riley in Australia.  John Riley’s grasp on the Riley surname was tenuous at best.  His
mother Susannah Nairn had married Edward Reilly in London in 1784 (she
marked her name with an “x” on the wedding certificate) and they had
had one son
together, Thomas Riley, born around 1788.

Three years later Susannah was caught and subsequently
accused and
convicted of stealing ten muslin handkerchiefs.
She was sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia.  By this time husband Edward and son Thomas
seem to have disappeared from her life.

She departed to Australia on the Kitty
in April 1792.  Whilst
on board it
was recorded that Susannah was delivered of a son during the journey.  In fact John Riley was born on the ship in
Sydney harbor in November 1792 as the convicts were waiting to
disembark.  Who the father was is not known.  It was clearly not Edward Riley and may
instead have been one of the inmates at Newgate jail where she had been
imprisoned.  But Susannah continued to
use the Riley name and was so listed in the convict muster of 1806.

Susannah had in fact married another man, a fellow convict Robert Wells
thus became John’s stepfather, and they made their home in the
district.  Was this a marriage of
convenience?  When she died in 1814 Robert
soon took up
with another woman.

comparison with Susannah’s turmoil, her son John
Riley went on to have a rather stable life in Australia.
He married Catherine Lattimore in 1814 and
they raised six children.

eldest son John took up with a woman named
Catherine Becket around 1840 and lived with her for the next forty five
years.  They apparently never married,
although they may have had as many as fifteen children.

James Riley Stabbed on Stage in Melbourne.  James C. Campbell was the stage name of James Riley.  He had an unfortunate stabbing while onstage in September 1859.  Bell’s
Life in Victoria reported as follows:

“A singular accident occurred on Monday
night.  The piece being played was The
Flowers of the Forest
.  In one of the
scenes Cynthia, a gypsy girl, played by Miss O’Reilly, had a struggle
with the
wolf, Mr. J. C. Campbell, the latter trying to wrest a poinard from her
grasp.  In the encounter Mr. Campbell was
severely wounded on the left thigh.

It is almost impossible to say how the
accident occurred and even those persons sitting in the front seats did
observe that any wound had been inflicted until their attention was
drawn to it
by the cries of the wounded man.  Several
of the spectators from the front seats then rushed on the stage and
found that
Mr. Campbell had fainted.

An examination at once showed that he had been stabbed
slightly below the left groin.
Dr. Dempster was sent for and his examination of the wound
proved that
though the knife had penetrated to the femoral artery, it had glanced
without severing it.

Miss O’Reilly who had been expressly shocked by this
untoward accident was, with the rest of the performers, very assiduous
in her
attentions to the wounded man.”

Miss Kate O’Reilly is thought to have been
related to J.C. Campbell aka James Riley, being either a sister or a cousin.



Riley Names

  • John Riley was an English portrait painter at Court in the late 1600’s.
  • Bennet Riley was the military
    Governor of California in 1849.
  • James Whitcomb Riley became known in America in the 1890’s as the Hoosier poet.
  • William Riley and his sons developed the Riley motor car that was popular in England in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Select Riley Numbers Today

  • 41,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in Lancashire)
  • 48,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 17,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)


Select Riley and Like Surnames

Many surnames have come from Lancashire.  These are some of the noteworthy surnames that you can check out.


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